What Makes Us Happy – Little Joe (2019)

With an interesting concept, good performances, and eye-catching presentation, sometimes the sum just doesn’t feel equal to the whole of its parts. That’s the general takeaway from Little Joe, but I still enjoyed it.

This movie was nominated for the Palme ‘de Ore at Cannes in 2019 and took home Best Actress for Emily Beecham, so it had serious legs right from the beginning. A corporate botanist is working to produce a plant that gives off pollen that makes its owners happy. Meanwhile, her relationship with her teenage son and co-worker (Ben Whishaw) is about as cold as the other side of the pillow. The happy plant, “Little Joe”, isn’t exactly what was expected either and unleashes a host of other problems. 

Alice (Emily Beecham) overseeing her crop of genetically engineered creations

Director Jessica Hausner and co-writer Geraldine Bajard’s film has some very lofty ideals but seems to mix its messaging when it comes to its criticisms of mood-regulating drugs. On the one hand, the protagonist (played marvelously by Beecham) is genetically engineering a mood-altering plant. On the other hand, the people who’ve been exposed to the plant seem happy enough, if not entirely themselves. So, when Alice (Beecham) is caught off guard by the plants’ effects and promotes autonomy and freedom from a mood-altering substance that she engineered, things got cloudy.

Lost in her work, Alice struggles to connect with her son, Joe (Kit Connor)

In hindsight, I view it more as a critique of good but misguided intentions. Alice’s career is defined by her haste and ingenuity in creating the happy plant. However, she cut a lot of genetic corners along the way. It’s only through the pollen’s application that she realizes her goal of anesthetizing people’s lives doesn’t look how she thought it would.

It’s more of a broad-strokes take that doesn’t factor in people who genuinely need a mood stabilizer for quality of life, so I can see why that’s been brought up. It’s aimed more so at the idea of solving everyday malaise with chemicals rather than doing the work organically. There is substance there but the story we get on film doesn’t quite bridge that gap. 

The color jumps right off the screen and the visual storytelling is exceptional. Katharina Wöppermann’s production design is great and Nicola Wake’s set design is vibrant. The music, however, is a complete tonal mismatch. It really takes you out of the mood that’s established by the stronger elements. Overall, the presentation is still pretty well done.

Recommendation: See it for the wonderful color palette and for the performances, led by Emily Beecham. 

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